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In conversation with… Alice Taylor, Part I: Scottish Identity, Intermarriage, and “Revolts”

Dr Alice Taylor on-call and mid-flow!

Last month, students on the Special Subject module ‘The Celtic Frontier: Post-Conquest England and her Celtic Neighbours’ were given the opportunity to interview Dr Alice Taylor, an expert on medieval Scotland and author of The Shape of the State in Medieval Scotland, 1124-1290 (Oxford, 2016). The students’ questions focused on the long twelfth century and ranged from Scottish identity and culture to elite politics. After 50 minutes (!!) of grilling, we finally let Alice go…

This blog post and the next provide the highlights of our discussion. They are must-reads for students working on Scotland in the twelfth century – we are very grateful to Alice for both her time and her full responses!

The session was chaired by Dr Stuart Pracy with students on the module posing the questions. We begin with a question from Damien Welham.


DW: I’ve got a question on Scottish identity… It’s quite broad, but how did the coming of Anglo-Normans shift what it meant to be Scottish? And what would you say were the main problems that they caused?

Alice Taylor: Goodness, Damien, that’s a big question! So the question ‘how does elite settlement into Scotland over the twelfth century change political culture’ is, basically, the question that has preoccupied historians of medieval Scotland for about 200 years – and there have been many different ideas about it.

There are people who would call it the ‘Normanization’ of Scotland, that what happens to Scotland is the same as what happens to England following the Norman Conquest. So you have the imposition of fiefs, you’ve got the rise of French as the dominant language of the elites, you’ve got castle-building… It’s what happens to England in miniature. And if you were reading a book in the 1950s then this would be what you would read.

Now, there have been a number of people who have been working since the 1950s who are like, ‘hold on a second!’ Because what’s happened over the last 70 years is, essentially, a kind of cultural limitation of the effects of Anglo-Norman settlement. A lot has been done in terms of reframing. What’s the biggest shift in the geopolitics of north Britain? Rather than Anglo-Norman settlement, it’s the shift of the kingdom of Alba from north of the Forth to south of the Forth.

The Firth of Forth is a really, really big divide, even in Scotland now. And until the Forth Bridge was built, it was really difficult to get over. So in the thirteenth century and, indeed, before, people would call Scotland north of the Forth an island. If you look at the maps of Matthew Paris from the thirteenth century, he presents Scotland north of the Forth as being only connected to the rest of Britain by a bridge. And this area north of the Forth was called ‘Scotland’ – so the Kingdom of the Scots was much bigger than the area of ‘Scotland’.

Northern Britain as depicted by Matthew Paris ©BL

So, in a way, the big transition is the eleventh-century shift in the centre of power of the Scottish kingdom and Scottish kings to being within the area now called Lothian. That’s the area that contains Edinburgh, Roxburgh and (then) Berwick – kind of urban settlements. The incorporation of Lothian as the centre of Scottish kingship is a more profound shift for the geopolitics of Scotland because, if you think about it, if your centre is in the north, then who are you most interested in? Essentially, Norway and Denmark – not the kingdom of England! Whereas what happens in the late eleventh century is you’ve got a new dynasty, which is situating itself as being the rightful kings of England, in a way, and looking much more to the south as the primary area of diplomatic engagement. And so the settlement of the Anglo-Normans needs to be seen in that context, which is a cultural shift seen in the kings of Scots themselves. So you can absolutely see big changes because you have the replacement of an elite! But those big changes need to be seen in the context of a much broader shift that is being led by kings, rather than being led against kings, if that makes sense.

DW: Thank you very much! This week I’ve read quite a lot about this Forth divide and that I found that quite interesting.

AT: It is! It is really interesting because it’s also this idea of the symbolic power of Scotland north of the Forth. There’s this extraordinary source called On the Location of Alba which was written in the late twelfth century and talks about the symbolic division of the kingdom of the Scots into seven – and the earliest division is the area north of the Forth. So there’s the question of whether or not the south is Scottish… At this point, the monks of Melrose, an abbey in the modern Scottish borders, are still writing about themselves as though the Scots are other people. They only start seeing themselves as being part of the kingdom in the thirteenth century – Dauvit Broun has written about this.

We always like to complicate things as historians, but even talking about Scotland is a kind of later imposition on what is actually a much more complicated polity that these elites are entering. And they’re thinking ‘well, this is very different from my fief in Shropshire’… Which it is! If you were Walter FitzAlan and you were given Ayrshire you might have been like ‘my lordship in Shropshire has not really prepared me for this…’ That would be how I would certainly feel if I were him!

Stuart Pracy: I’ve been to both Scotland and Shropshire and they are very different – so I will back you up on that! It’s definitely different.

AT: And it’s different strategies of lordship. That also puts a very different spin on the idea of intermarriage. You know the imperative, the need to intermarry, because what you’re marrying into is knowledge. What does it mean to be an Anglo-Norman lord in Angus? It’s very, very different from Sussex. And the kinds of social relationships that you’re entering into… marriage is a really, really useful tool for that.

SP: Hanife, it looks like you have a question you want to ask that follows on from this.

Hanife Hursit: Yes, my question was actually in relation to intermarriage, and I’m interested in the role that women played. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find much information on it, I guess because it’s the medieval period. But my question was going to be on the importance of intermarriage in Scottish politics and the wider role that women played – and your take on that.

AT: It’s a really interesting question – and in some ways the example of Scotland only highlights some of the issues that we have looking at the twelfth century in particular. Most of the evidence from medieval Scotland in this period survives from charters. You might have been introduced to the People of Medieval Scotland database (POMS), which contains information about all the people who are mentioned in the Scottish charter corpus. And it’s both a funny and sad fact that for about 200 years there are more people in that database called William than there are women! The materials that we have to study even just aristocratic women are based on what we can garner from charters, because there’s not much in the way of a chronicle tradition in this period…

‘It’s both a funny and sad fact that for about 200 years there are more people in that database called William than there are women!’

We know that there are hugely powerful heiresses, women who exercise vast amounts of power and authority, particularly in the west, and who we know are acting as these key nodes of lordly patronage and lordly networks – but we don’t really know anything more than that. We also know that there are large numbers of intermarriages not just through the existing Gaelic-speaking aristocracy but also, for want of a better word, Anglo-Norman women who are marrying major mormaers (regional rulers). We also know a lot about women’s patronage, what they give land to. But it is very, very difficult to look at the political role of women here because there’s just not a lot of twelfth-century evidence, even though we know intermarriage is the way in which these incoming lords must have embedded themselves.

So, an example is my totes fave Eschina, lord of Mow in Roxburghshire, who sometimes calls herself Eschina of London – and she is somebody whose marriage patterns you can actually track! Eschina of Mow/London marries Walter FitzAlan, her first husband, and it’s also possible that she is related to the mother of William the Lion’s high-profile illegitimate son Robert of London. Her marriage alliances are, essentially, ways in which she starts exercising firstly, her power over southern Scotland through her marriage to Walter FitzAlan and, secondly, embeds herself in that south-easterly lordship of Roxburgh, which is the richest area of the kingdom at this time. But you have to do that work yourself… That’s the annoying thing about studying aristocratic women in Scotland – and that’s where POMS is really helpful. So you can type in Eschina’s name into POMS and immediately you get all the known information about her. She’s somebody who doesn’t appear in chronicles and we wouldn’t know anything about her were it not for charters. But it is very clear that in the second half of the twelfth century she is this key node that allows for a lot of other people to gain status through her. I’d say Matthew Hammond is probably the best person to read on women in the adoption of charters. I don’t know if that answers your question!

SP: It’s a very, very thorough answer and I think it covered everything and more, didn’t it?! Do we have another question?

Evan Shingles: My question’s on Scottish royal relationships with the kings of Man and the Isles. I wanted to know how the Scottish kings related to them in the twelfth century: was it always hostile? Was it sometimes positive?

AT: It’s a really interesting question – and the short answer is a bit of both. Incursions from the west start early in the reign of Mael Coluim IV, when he’s young and everyone hates him. There’s been a way of writing until very, very recently (possibly spurred on by devolution) that considers these incursions overwhelmingly in national terms. So anything that looked like an incursion against royal authority would be written as a ‘rebellion’, for example, you’ve got a ‘rebellion in Moray’. It’s the idea that somehow these Scottish kings have natural authority and anything that is against them is understood in the words of rebellion. The last of this tradition is probably Andrew McDonald’s Outlaws of Medieval Scotland, where you are looking at people who are “revolting” and then writing about them as though they are rebels.

And Somerled is very interesting because Alex Woolf has written a really nice piece about a text called the Song of the Death of Somerled. He has this beautiful reading where he basically rewrites the entire history of these incursions from the west in the reign of Mael Coluim and reframes them by saying these aren’t incursions, these aren’t rebellions, these aren’t attacks. This is actually a large diplomatic alliance, which has different people leading at different points and which Somerled is part of. It’s a different option that’s going on in Alba, i.e. Scotland north of the Forth, basically in direct opposition to the kingship of Mael Coluim. So when we’re looking at these relationships it’s sometimes hard to find literature that actually speaks about them in the way that they should be spoken about. Richard Oram in his Domination and Lordship book writes about the reign of Mael Coluim IV very well here, based on the work of the late Alasdair Ross. But that’s very, very recent – that’s in the last 10 years!

And so when we’re thinking about the relationships with the kings of Man and the kings of the Isles, it’s very, very important to see them as being part of a diplomatic alliance in which the authority and legitimacy of kingship is not secure. There are other options, there are other ways of thinking about Scottish kingship, particularly in that middle period of the twelfth century. You could be looking at a very, very different kind of polity which just essentially leaves southern Scotland and Northumberland to the remnants of Mael Coluim III and Margaret’s dynasty, and actually sees a much broader-based alliance between what’s now central and eastern Scotland and the west…

SP: I think that’s a really interesting idea, because your book is all about how Anglo-centric viewpoints on Scotland are problematic. But it’s interesting to see the regional historiographical issues with revolts in the area – an interesting breakdown of historiographical problems within broader historiographical trends!


See our next blog post for ‘Part II: “Culture Wars”, the State, and Overlordship in Twelfth-Century Scotland’

Breaking the Silence: An Interview with Rachel Rose Reid, Part 2

In my previous post for the Centre for Medieval Studies blog, I promised a much-needed follow-up to my interview with the storyteller Rachel Rose Reid, whose retelling of the medieval French Roman de Silence is currently touring around the country. This week, we’ll be talking about some of the more challenging questions raised by the text, and their impact on how she has interpreted the text and devised her own piece.

Rachel and ‘Silence’


Returning to your interpretation of Silence, I was struck by the way in which you begin Part 1 of the story. Why did you start your retelling of Silence by recounting your own story — that is, the story of how you came across this wonderful text?

There were a couple of reasons: firstly, Heldris (the narrator-figure in Silence) doesn’t ‘start the story with the story’ either! Instead, we have this intriguing prologue that offers an invective against avarice. While I don’t begin my retelling in quite the same way, I do think that my own introduction serves a similar purpose — that is, to involve the audience in my storytelling, and to begin ‘weaving’, together with them, the world of the story. Immersion isn’t everything: whenever I come back to moments of honesty like this one, where I tell my own story, I’m being authentically present with the audience. There’s something in that interaction which means that people follow you: they trust you, and you’re able to ‘catch’ them if you feel that they need to be brought back into the story.

… and, of course, Heldris does this throughout their own story, interacting — or at least presenting an interaction — with his own audience. There are points where he’s very direct about this: just before he reaches Silence’s birth, Heldris promises the audience (in the English translation) ‘a lively tale without any further fuss or ado’!

… and this itself raises a fascinating question: why does the story (as Heldris tells it) start so far beforehand? Heldris could easily have started the story with the birth of Silence, but chooses not to: instead, there’s a focus on this question of inheritance, which makes up a large part of the first part of Silence. On a personal level, the inheritance question — which of course ‘sets up’ the motive for Silence to present as a different gender later in the story — is something that I’m very interested in. I’m part of a collective called Three Acres and a Cow, which has really opened my eyes to the different relationships that people have had to land over the centuries; it seems that, although we’re many generations down the line from the world of Silence, there’s still very much a legacy there, and the attitudes towards land and inheritance that Silence documents are still evident in the present day. A few years ago, I visited several Cornish towns with a story about suffrage, and people told us that their own aunts had missed out on inheritances for this same reason: it had gone to particular male relatives, in this case just before changes were made to inheritance law. I’m fascinated by the cultural landscape that informs tales such as Silence, by what it would mean to hear about changes to the law such as these; and by whether Evan’s actions would have been considered provocative or commonplace.

And yet, modern academic work on Silence – with some exceptions – really hasn’t shown the same interest in the inheritance question. One particularly dry description of the opening conflict between the counts sees it as nothing more than a ‘debate over primogeniture’, and in general, it’s the questions of gender that have dominated scholarship, with Simon Gaunt noting (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that Silence ‘appears to engage deliberately with problems that interest modern theorists.’

Questions surrounding gender are more ‘front-and-centre’ in Part 2 of my retelling, of course, but the two ideas about inheritance and women are of course intimately connected. I’m interested in both questions: about who would have listened to this story, and how contentious the material about land ownership would have been. It’s been really satisfying to work with medievalists, including medievalists who aren’t necessarily familiar with the Roman de Silence itself, but who work on the general period during which it was produced. Even if the insights that come out of these conversations don’t make it into my retelling every night, it’s really fun talking to academics who can help to inform my telling of the story, answering some of the more esoteric questions. One question that’s intriguing me at the moment is that of what Cornwall would have meant to the audience of Silence: would it simply have been ‘somewhere far away’, or would it have had a more concrete opening?

That’s a tricky question to answer, but there has increasingly been a tendency in research to stress the ‘connectedness’ of the medieval world, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the audience of Silence to be aware of Cornwall, at least in the context of a lot of the Arthurian material that locates Arthur in this area. The very fact that the manuscript of Silence has survived in Britain at all is testament to cross-Channel movement: it is, after all, written in a dialect of French that shows relatively little Anglo-Norman influence, with far more of a Picard ‘feel’ to it. One theory suggests that the manuscript was composed around the late 13th century as part of a marriage dowry, only reaching England as a piece of plunder late in the Hundred Years’ War.1 Histories of manuscript provenance are, in the end, personal stories — much like the stories that you bring alive in your retelling.

For me, Silence is very much a story about how humans — whether the characters in Silence, or the owners of the manuscript — try to structure the world. Each of us has ways in which we try to structure our world in order to make everything okay; in the case of the characters in Silence, it’s society that has trapped people into certain ways of being. That’s one of the reasons why I try to present Eufeme (King Evan’s Queen, who fulfills the ‘Potiphar’s wife’ trope) as a more rounded character. Heldris might try to give us some understanding of her motivations, but there’s more to be said here: Eufeme might seem to be terrible, but if you look at how she got to be where she is, the only place where she can enact real change is in the personal realm. Only Merlin sits apart from this, and his laughter — which I’ve always read as cosmic, not cruel — seems to me to be saying, ‘look at all these humans, who think they can control and set up these structures.’

Rachel with Hayley Cotterill, Senior Archivist at the University of Nottingham, in front of the manuscript of the Roman de Silence.

Working with Rachel has been an absolute privilege, and it’s been wonderful to re-acquaint myself with the Roman de Silence after a few years, particularly in the form of a retelling as lively, engaging, and powerful as hers. Rachel has transformed a story whose characters are often read as ciphers — ‘Silence’, ‘Euphemie’, ‘Eupheme’ — into an intensely human tale, while preserving its focus on questions that connect the medieval and the modern. 

For more information about Silence, see the show’s website.

Rachel has toured Parts 1 and 2 of Silence during 2018, supported by Arts Council England, and is currently writing the final section. She is seeking partners, hosts, and grants to make it possible for her to perform the whole of her adaptation (possibly two sets of two-hour performances, so may require an overnight experience) at various locations during 2019. Please send ideas, suggestions and offers to ; for more information, see silencespeaks.strikingly.com and rachelrosereid.com. 

If you’re reading this shortly after publication, and happen to live near either Amsterdam or Birmingham, Rachel will be bringing Silence to you on 3rd and 8th November respectively!

Edward Mills, PhD Student


1 More recent work on the manuscript, however, has argued for an earlier dating of the early 13th century, based on an analysis of paratextual features such as illustration. See Alison Stones, ‘Two French Manuscripts: WLC/LM/6 and WLC/LM/7’, in Ralph Hanna and Thorlac Turville-Petre (eds.), The Wollaton Medfieval Manuscripts: Texts, Owners and Readers (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2010), pp. 41-56.

James Clark in Champaign, IL: A French Noblewoman Makes her Monastic Vows

In the heart of the American Mid-West, two and a half hours from Chicago, in the University twin town of Urbana-Champaign is a rare gem of a collection of medieval manuscripts.

Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL


An early translation of the Rule of St Benedict

UIUC MS 98, fo. 1r. Photo courtesy of the Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL

Among them is a French translation of the Regula Benedictiitself a relatively rare survival, particularly from such an early date (c. 1270), although vernacular versions of the rule were widely attested. The translation is also distinguished by an opening illumination (fo. 1ra) with an unusual depiction of Benedictine sisters gathered before the sainted father of the order and maker of the rule, clutching what would appear to represent their profession statements.


A nun’s vows

Pasted on to the lower margin of Chapter 58, ‘On the manner of receiving sisters’, (fo. 25r), is an original profession statement, written out in a formal textura hand on a separate slip of parchment (now trimmed). The statement is in the name of one Claudia de Brilly, who identifies herself as making her profession of vows to become a sister of the abbey of St Sulpice and St Glossinde at Metz in the presence of Abbot Benedict of the abbey of St Arnould in the same city. The family of Brilly were lords of Touffreville and Villers-Bocage.

UIUC MS 98 2
UIUC MS 98, fo. 25r. Photo courtesy of the Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This Benedict can be identified as Benoit Juville who held the abbacy of St Arnould between 1545 and 1566, defending the ancient abbey church even as the Emperor Charles V laid siege to Metz in 1552. Abbé Benoit was forced to lead his brethren to the relative safety of the city’s Dominican convent, although the Imperial siege ultimately proved unsuccessful. The sisters of St Glossinde, however, held firm and, for all the tensions outside, young Claudia’s early years under vows were uninterrupted.


A symbol of continuity

In several different ways the manuscript represents continuities in medieval monastic history: the remarkable resilience of female observance at Metz, which began in the 7th century and persisted until August 1792; the enduring role of Metz, once the crucible of the Gorze reform, as a monastic hub; and the survival of the ceremonial of profession, and the materiality of the rule within it, even as the boundaries, indeed the polities of the old European Christendom came apart at the seams.

Prof. James G. Clark, at Champaign, IL

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